by Thomas O'Grady
I think that a writer having to explain his or her poem is a lot like a comedian having to explain a joke: if the words can’t stand on their own legs in their moment under the spotlight, then there’s a problem. That being said, I acknowledge that for the under-initiated, reading a poem can be as challenging as reading a wine list or a racing form or a recipe or, for that matter, the diagrams in a football playbook or the notes on a sheet of music—poetry is not the mainstream discourse of our place and time. Beyond that generalization, any given poem—the way it sits on the page, the concentration of its language, the elusiveness of its allusiveness—may prove daunting even to experienced readers of poetry. So in sharing these poems of mine with the Saint Mary’s College family, I want to offer some reading handholds from the trove of “touchstones” that I have accumulated over my years of both reading and writing poems.
The first of these touchstones comes from British poet W. H. Auden in the form of a question he asks of any poem: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” American poet William Carlos Williams implies a similar strategy of reading when he alerts us to how “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” So when we read a poem, we should be attentive both to the specific words (the “diction”) employed—or deployed—by the poet and to how those words act and interact with each other as the poem unfolds (or, like a machine, operates) in space and in time before our eyes and in our minds. And, when read aloud, in our mouths and in our ears.
Another touchstone I like is a bit more philosophical—in fact, it’s from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard—but I think it expresses something essential about the “density” of even the most simple-seeming poems: “Poetry is a metaphysics of the moment. It has to convey within the space of a short poem a vision of the universe and the secrets of a heart, a person, things—and do so all at once.” That’s a tall order! But it’s also the invitation that a poem extends to the reader to spend time with both what it says and how it says it. On a more down-to-earth level, Bachelard’s observation dovetails neatly with a claim that Polish
Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz once made (in a poem!): “One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.”
A further handhold/touchstone I want to put into play on this occasion is from another Nobel Laureate, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His reminder to readers comes close to describing my own impulse to write poems: “One of the first functions of a poem, after all, is to satisfy a need in the poet. The achievement of a sufficient form and the release of a self-given music have a justifying effect within his life.” Like the vast majority of the poems I’ve written, three that I’m including here follow the formal conventions—the hard line breaks and/or stanza breaks—of modern lyric free verse poetry. The outlier, “Heron,” is a prose poem. I take my license for that one from French poet Charles Baudelaire: “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the jolts of consciousness?” 1
Thomas O’Grady, Ph.D. is the author of two books of poems, What Really Matters and Delivering the News, both published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in their distinguished Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series. He is married to President Katie Conboy and is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College.
. . . and then, late one afternoon
in the midst of it all, these hard dark
days, we saw from the kitchen window,
first by the drystone wall in the yard,
then ankle-deep in the pond, an egret
standing tall and bright as a wand.
It glowed, a blinding shaft of light.
When it rose into awkwardly graceful flight,
it took us with it, above the suddenly
budding trees, and beyond.
Its dipping wings the dripping
oars of a dory, all flicks
and flitters, it shimmers
the bright-crested tide
of morning, a tipsy boatman
rowing a meadowy sea.
DANCE OF THE SEVEN PLATES
The temperature dropped
like a hammer. Snow
began to feather the sky.
We kept an eye on the skin-
thin skims of ice caught up
in the river’s flow. They spun
like plates in a Chinese circus.
The cascade spilled downstream
in a shimmering shiver. They took
the plunge. We watched them
dip then tip and slip and fall
in a stunningly silent shatter.
The heavens burst. The rain off the river a
sudden sideways gush, we ducked and
dodged, the glorious day turned hard and gray. We shook our fists at the spilling skies. We
cursed our sorry luck. The world awash, we watched a wise old man hunch low on a
crooked branch, his sodden collar bunched
and frayed, his piercingly yellow eyes aglow.